I’ve been to some haunted houses in my time. Once I went to Alcatraz and the Winchester Mystery House on the same day, and I can tell you that standing in a cell at Alcatraz gave me one of the creepiest, worst feelings I’ve ever had. Historic haunted sites are all missing a few things, though. They have the history, they have the structure, sometimes they even have carefully restored landscaping for extra authenticity. What they don’t have are the haunted families, the people who lived inside - or the stuff. Most of the haunted houses I have visited are very much inhabited. Whether they’re haunted by those who have crossed over is up for discussion. The real haunted houses are those haunted by the living.
I deal with squalor and hoarding. I don’t always win, either. As long as I’ve been doing this work, I’m still unable to guess who is going to make it and who is going to fade back into the shadows. These homes are packed to the rafters - often quite literally - with physical objects. Much more so, they’re filled from wall to wall with unprocessed emotion. That’s the first level of haunting. Almost all the time, this emotional mist consists mostly of grief. For some reason, losing a loved one seems to trigger hoarding, even in people who had always been immaculate housekeepers. Losing more than one family member in a short period of time seems to escalate this tendency. A grief so heavy it creates its own weather system.
The second level of haunting is within the objects left behind. Anything owned or used by the departed becomes a holy relic. In many ways, the less value the object has, the more it is made sacred. I’ve seen hairbrushes with the hair still in them, bedside tables with the pill bottles and tissues still strewn around, sheets and blankets unchanged for who knows how long even though the bereaved partner is still sleeping in them. Usually, the bedroom is left as a shrine, and I’ve known people to decamp to a couch or recliner for months or years after the passing.
We have to ask ourselves if this is what our loved ones would have wanted for us. Is this how they would have wanted to be remembered? Think how they would have wept to see us this way, clinging to their old clothes and casserole pans, mired in sorrow, feeling that we’ll never laugh again. It’s like we become ghosts in our own homes.
That’s the third level of haunting.
Not everyone hoards due to grief. Some don’t even realize there’s another way to live, because everyone they know keeps house this way. Others are very deeply bound to their stuff, regarding their personal belongings as auxiliary organs or limbs. It’s pretty common for my people to keep every single book or article of clothing that comes through the door, and I do mean every. Ten years or more and they haven’t let go of a single thing, because why would they? What are you saying, that every molecule of stuff I’ve ever touched isn’t incredibly and deeply meaningful? To me, this extraordinary emotional attachment to physical objects is very similar to how we picture ghosts being attached to haunted houses. Can’t let go. Refuses to step into the light. Rejects the idea of moving on. This place is MINE.
One of the most commonly hoarded categories of objects, from what I’ve seen, is holiday decorations. Halloween is great for this. Now, don’t get me wrong - I adore Halloween and I think it’s the second-best holiday. I really get a kick out of extravagant Halloween decorations. It’s just that I know how bulky they are, and I’ve been in enough storage units and garages to know where they spend the other eleven months of the year. As huge a horror fan as I am, I don’t have a single Halloween decoration. I like to wear costumes, watch horror films, read horror novels, and of course eat candy. I might dress up my dog, who loves to wear clothes of any kind. But my 680-square-foot apartment and nomadic lifestyle don’t support storing anything I don’t use in daily life. I don’t know how other people do it. It often surprises me, the way my people will put out decorations in a room filled with stacks and piles. It’s like sticking a bouquet in a laundry basket or setting out a birthday cake on top of a sink full of dirty dishes. Or... like placing flowers on a grave?
I’ve worked around urns, the cremains of both humans and animals. I’ve been warned away from the off-limits stacks of grief boxes, sometimes of multiple generations. I’ve even worked with friends when I’ve known the deceased. It’s hard. It’s like picking your footing in a thick fog. We weep for our loved ones, for the life they missed out on, for the experiences they won’t get to have. We forget to look up and notice that we’re doing the same to ourselves. They wouldn’t want this for us.
In grief, nobody ever says the right thing. We can’t believe anyone could ever possibly imagine our pain. We think this even as we know that everyone has lost someone. Grief doesn’t really tend to bring out the best in anyone, does it? We cling to the things our loved ones used, as though they represent the person in some way, rather than remembering them through their true legacy. What they leave behind are the impressions they’ve made on us. Their character, their personality, the words and actions that impressed us the most. The values they’ve taught us. The stories they told, the recipes they passed on. Sometimes unresolved issues, sure, and those are the ones that make us hang on the hardest, unable to say goodbye, not in this way, not yet. It’s safe to say that no matter what, nobody wants to be remembered through a stack of crumbling cardboard boxes.
Money is so abstract. I don’t know about you, but I can go months without needing to use cash. Almost all of our bills are set up on auto-pay, and all our sources of income are deposited directly into our accounts. Our finances are set up in such a way that we don’t really have to pay them any mind; we can go about our business without knowing how much we have in our accounts. Most people probably do something similar. As modern people, we don’t have to carry around little pouches full of hammered coins and hack silver. Money is energy, and it shows up as digital representations of numerals that we look at on various screens. If we’re still getting paper account statements, many of us are letting them stack up, still glued inside their envelopes. Deciding to go debt-free means pulling money out of the world of the abstract and trying to make it more concrete, more real. Visualizing debt in any way that makes sense is one way to begin to fight it.
A drawing of a thermometer is a common symbol for fundraising. That’s one way to do it. Calculate the amount you owe, draw a thermometer, and color it in as you pay it off. I don’t know, though. As a constantly chilly person, I love the idea of the money thermometer gradually warming up, but that visual might not do much for others. The other problem with this idea is that debt is a moving target. Between interest payments, finance charges, fees, service charges, and every other category of expenditure that exists, the balance can go up even as your latest payment clears the bank.
I used to have a little image inside my purse. I clipped it out of a magazine and taped it inside the top of my purse, which was shaped like a little trunk. The picture was of a man opening his wallet, hair standing on end, eyes bugging out, mouth dropping open in alarm, while all of his paper money grew wings and flew out of his wallet. I chose the picture because I wanted to associate spending money with feeling horrified. There were indeed moments when I considered buying something, opened my purse, saw the image of the flying money, and put the item back. This dissuaded me from a few purchases, but in itself it didn’t help me to increase my income or to become debt-free. It didn’t help me to replace my narrative about money with anything positive or constructive.
I paid off one of my student loans six years early. It was a Perkins loan. I chose it because it was the next-smallest debt on my list; I’d spent the past couple of years steadily paying off personal loans and credit card balances, and I had no consumer debt left. This was after I sold my car. I visualized the Perkins loan as a man named Perkins. Perkins was a pencil-neck geek, a sniveling Poindexter whose sole goal in life was to triple-check his ledger and look for extra pennies to add to my account balance. Bureaucracy personified. “Take that, Perkins!” I would say to myself as I made extra payments.
Up to that time, my primary visualization came in the form of a spreadsheet. I had a line item for each of my bank accounts, credit cards, personal loans, car loan, everything. There was a page for my expenses. I would track when my bills were due along with when my paychecks would come in, figuring each time one of those extra-paycheck months rolled around. I checked the spreadsheet every day, updating the balances. This habit helped me catch a few bank errors and discrepancies in my bills. Zeroing out the balance on a loan that I had finally retired was a great way of reminding myself that I had made progress. I was gaining ground in this battle.
Territory on a Risk board. Blasting holes in a giant asteroid that’s hurtling toward your roof. Plugging holes in a little rowboat. Throwing bundles of cash over your shoulder at mobsters in hot pursuit. Racing from one destination (Debt City) to another (Financial Independence Island). Maybe you can visualize your creditors as various movie monsters, and you have to neutralize them before they succeed in breaking through your boarded-up windows.
Debt is ants crawling on a pie. You don’t really want to be eating that pie; it’s awfully hard to enjoy something that’s supposed to be sweet when you know it’s contaminated. (The pie is your cash flow). That’s one thing that ants and other vermin have in common with debt. They increase on you and they start taking over the minute you relax vigilance.
Debt is a shackle on your ankle. The bigger the debt, the bigger the ball that’s attached to the chain, the more it slows you down as you drag your leg.
Debt is leaving the window open during a blizzard. Each separate source of debt is another window open to the snow.
Debt is a leaky roof. Eventually the drips will start causing water damage to your carpets, your flooring, your furniture, your walls. Eventually there’s black mold everywhere and you’re ankle-deep in a puddle.
Debt is the selfish Past Self, stealing from you, picking your pocket and laughing at you. Debt is Past Self, taking your vacation money and blowing it on pizza. Past Self, throwing tantrums and demanding to be placated with toys and treats. Past Self, easily bored and uninterested in budgets or bank statements or quarterly reports or planning for any kind of future. Past Self, this is your fault!
Visualizing debt should bring up feelings of anger, frustration, and determination. This is where the drive to demolish it comes from. Sadness, guilt, shame, or futility aren’t going to get the job done here. Debt is, very simply, a cultural problem that affects most people at least temporarily. It’s not a character flaw, it’s just a circumstance that can be changed. Visualize it as something that you find so annoying that you take it personally: litter, a bad parking job, cigarette butts, graffiti, the cell phone ringing in the movie theater. Anchor your feelings of annoyance to your debt in whatever way you can. Let it tickle your brain. Make it a target. Start seeing your debt as a specific, individual villain that you can defeat. When you’ve pummeled it into submission, you can then start the fun of visualizing wealth.
The New “I Do” is about “Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists, and Rebels.” This category probably includes the vast majority of divorced people such as the authors, Susan Pease Gadoua and Vicki Larson; myself; and my husband. From that vantage point, I heartily recommend reading this book for anyone who is currently single, dating, or engaged. It’s also great fun for a happily married person. I came away both validated and regretful that I hadn’t read a book like this before I met my first husband. Communicating honestly and being willing to modify a customized marriage would save a lot of heartbreak and prevent a lot of divorce.
You don’t marry a person. You marry that person, their entire past, their entire family, their children, their pets, their possessions, their debt, their habits, their values, and their plans for the future. You’re also marrying their attitudes about marriage, both overt and subconscious. The reverse is also true. You’re bringing your own stuff to the table, both good and ill, both what you put up on the board and what you try to kick underneath. I believe that this, my second marriage, works because we already knew at least 80% of each other’s baggage before we even started dating. We also spent about a year talking out what our relationship would be like if we upgraded. Now we’ve been together for eleven years, married for eight, and our relationship is more or less hassle-free.
One of our most romantic nights was the night he brought over all his financial information and asked to see mine. We still have the sheet of paper we used to write out our financial goals for the next ten years. That was a few months before he proposed. It’s one thing for someone to pull out a ring and say, “I love you.” It’s something else entirely for someone to expose his financial assets after already having paid out several years of alimony and child support to someone else.
This is the sort of frank, pragmatic discussion that The New “I Do” advises. The book outlines several varieties of non-traditional marriage, each of which would require significant honesty and open communication from both parties. It would be hard to say which would be the most controversial. An official starter marriage, with a set end date and a promise not to have children! (Been there, did that, kinda). A companionship marriage for a couple who aren’t a romantic couple. A parenting marriage, designed to last only long enough to raise the kids to adulthood. A distance marriage known as “living alone together.” A covenant marriage, one where you can’t divorce without waiting for two years unless you can prove fault. A “safety” marriage, aka gold-digger plus sugar daddy (or mama). An open marriage. There’s even a chapter on pre-nuptial agreements for each type.
What if you live so long that you wind up being married for a hundred years? This is the kind of risk you run into when you put the ring on. Better be sure what you’re getting yourself into. If it’s the right person, it will still be the right person five years from now... or will it? Marriage done right is one of the best things ever. Marriage to the wrong person for the wrong reasons is a living hell. A little skepticism, a little rebellion, and certainly a little realism is the real romance. Ask enough questions that you know you’re marrying a real human being and that the marriage you create is one that suits all parties concerned.
“A wife or a husband is expected to be soul mate, lover, best friend, co-parent, great communicator, romantic, intellectual, and professional equal, companion, and financial partner, and also provide happiness, fulfillment, financial stability, intimacy, social status, fidelity . . . well, you get the idea.”
“Where there’s sex, there’s infidelity; will the next spike in divorce be over robot-human trysts?”
I interviewed my husband about how he made the decision to propose to me. I figured there was probably some game theory behind it, and that there must be some logic or mathematics involved. Turns out I was right.
Me: “Do you believe there’s a One?”
Him: “One what?”
Me: “One true partner. A soul mate.”
[I already knew this but I keep wondering if he’ll change his mind]
Me: “Hypothetically speaking, if you believe there are many possible options, how do you choose one person and settle down?”
It goes a little something like this. There’s a bar, and a certain number of people are above the bar. Choosing one person automatically adds value to that choice. The person you choose + the commitment that you make > any random person who happens to be above the bar.
Me: “But if you choose a 9, how you can you be satisfied that there won’t be a 10 further down the road?”
Him: “How do you know it is a 10? It’s like you were saying earlier, it’s catalogue shopping. Those other people are mannequins.”
What he’s saying is that our ratings are arbitrary and will change over time. Also, you can’t compare someone you don’t know to someone you do know. The attractive stranger has unknown flaws, unknown deal breakers, and a total lack of history with you. If you know you have a 9, it’s a poor gamble to trade for an unknown person who looks like a 10 who might, for you, turn out to be a 2 or 3.
Choosing one person has value in itself. The choice adds a dimension to the relationship. Then, every year that goes by makes the relationship more valuable. A known person + commitment + time > any random person starting from zero.
All of this is, when you think about it, almost impossibly romantic. My in-laws and my parents are two sets of people who married young, stayed married, and were never married to anyone else. My in-laws made it “till death do you part.” My parents are currently debating where to retire. Even though my husband and I are both in our second marriage, what he’s telling me is that he believes that marriage is intrinsically valuable and that nobody in the world could ever replace me, to a mathematical certainty.
We’re both Rational types, and we’re both ENTs. I love that he’s made this decision based on logic. It means he’s convinced.
He’s also right. I’m a solid gamble. That’s for three reasons: 1. I take being a wife seriously, as a job with regular performance evaluations; 2. I’m the marrying kind; and 3. I’m also convinced that he’s the one for me. I’ve made it my business to give him a happy life.
While I know we only met due to a random fluke, I’m convinced there is nobody on earth who would be a better fit for me. My “math” was a little different. I knew he was at least in the 99th percentile of available, awesome guys in my age range. For me, he was a 10 in friendship, a 10 in physical chemistry, and a 10 in finance. There’s simply no way I would hope to find someone who was my equal, who was a 10 in those three areas, and also surpassed him in some other way. (Not sure what that would be anyway…?)
About “the bar.” My husband introduced me to the concepts of the deal breaker, the non-starter, and the game changer. These are highly personal policies. For instance, one of his non-starters was dating a smoker and another was dating someone with kids. (He’s already raised his). Only people who meet all the criteria, who have none of the non-starters, get to pass the bar. In this context, there’s no such thing as a universal “perfect 10” because all that matters is whether this person would be a match for your specifications.
Back to engineering logic. “The field narrows” as you get older. At a certain point, you have to ask, “Why is this person single?” The older you get, the more people tend to be paired off. This is part of why elderly people sometimes remarry quickly. They know what they want and they know it when they see it. Also, they know the chances of finding love at their age and mobility level aren’t the same as when they were 21. Out of all the things that bother single people, this is probably the big one. All it means is to place more value on the people you like.
These are the considerations of middle age. We had the luxury of evaluating each other from a 40-mile distance, financially comfortable, in no hurry to repeat the mistakes of our youth, with no illusions about weddings. We knew that the risk of a bad marriage is significantly greater than the chance of a happy marriage. It doesn’t fall from the sky. There’s no magic ray that points at you and makes you perfect for someone. If we were going to be together, we were going into it with our eyes open, deliberately.
Romantic love, at least by pop culture definitions, is pretty much incompatible with marriage. Marriage is a business decision. You’re choosing 1. A lover 2. And roommate so you can 3. Make financial decisions together and 4. Co-own property while 5. Linking your legal reputations and possibly 6. Creating new humans 7. With their own financial, legal, and property interests, and then 8. Merging extended families. Those are a lot of incredibly distinct qualifications and it’s extremely bizarre that we expect one individual person to successfully perform all of those roles. “You started sleeping with your roommate and you’re having an affair with your business partner? And you want to bring them to Thanksgiving? How does that work?”
After eight years of marriage and eleven years as a couple, we’re confirmed in our calculations. Marrying each other was a good idea then and it’s a great idea now. We’re probably more physically attracted to each other now than we were twelve years ago. We’re both also more marriageable now. We might even be out of each other’s leagues! Marriage is an investment, an investment in a person and also in a particular vision of life. It’s not for everyone, just like home ownership or parenthood aren’t for everyone. For those who are the marrying kind, it’s the most efficient path toward happiness.
One of the first things I noticed when I started doing clutter work was a strong correlation between space clearing and weight loss. Why is this? The reasons that people clutter up their homes are as many and varied as the reasons that people gain and lose weight. These are both very broad cultural problems that affect almost all of us, problems that people of the Dark Ages didn’t have. They couldn’t afford either the extra food or the extra stuff; material goods were expensive for most of human history. Only now do we have the luxury of having both more food and more stuff than we know what to do with! Perhaps the first reason that clutter work tends to trigger weight loss is that it causes us to pause and ask ourselves, Is this what I want for myself? Did I do this with my life intentionally?
Clutter has some common causes, all of which can also be seen as common causes of weight gain:
Consumer culture / recreational shopping and eating
Perception of busy schedule
Depression, anxiety, other mental health issues
Addressing any one of these issues has a ripple effect, where resolving the problem also resolves other symptoms of the problem. As an example, getting a handle on chronic disorganization may result in a better financial outlook as well as more time to cook at home. Going for the root cause always leads to unanticipated positive side benefits. Often we find ourselves saying, “If only I’d known this would happen, I would have done it sooner!”
Most of my clients don’t cook. This is reflective of our cultural moment, as statistics show that Americans now spend more at restaurants and bars than we do on groceries. When we cook at home, most of us are buying packaged and prepared foods, not cooking from scratch. You know what I think? Based on what I’ve seen, I think one of the main reasons that most people don’t cook is that their kitchens are too... Um... How do I put this? Basically I would hesitate to pop a slice of toast in most of my clients’ kitchens. It’s pretty common for people to stock up on what I would consider to be three months’ worth of food, and try to pack it into the kitchen space with double or triple the amount of hardware that will fit. Nobody is going to cook if the sink and counters are constantly full of dirty dishes and there’s no available counter space.
Making a stand about clutter will eventually affect the kitchen. When the kitchen is reclaimed, when the kitchen starts to be used in the way it was designed to be used, we start eating more rationally.
Intensive space clearing takes time. It shakes up whatever was the default schedule, a schedule that may have been consistent for many years. We snap out of whatever dream we’ve been in, we look around, and we realize that entropy has been happening all around us. Many of us work in a near frenzy, finding energy we never knew we had, sometimes having trouble stopping even when it’s late on a work night. We can spend hours without realizing that time is passing. These are the same blocks of time that we might have spent on screen time, perhaps snacking because that’s what we’ve always done. Changing our default activities tends to change our eating patterns, too.
Even my clients who live alone report power struggles over how they keep their space. Friends and family members want to stick their oars in. Space clearing is often the first time that someone has taken initiative in life, effectively saying, “I make the rules around here now.” This is major, because we give ourselves permission to say both No and Yes. Unintentional weight gain often comes from adopting the eating habits of our nearest and dearest, who are usually surprisingly insistent that we not change or reject food offerings. We have to eat the way that they do, or they won’t feel like they have permission to eat that way anymore! Put your foot down and say, “This isn’t working for me,” and all sorts of things happen.
Of course, sometimes both clutter clearing and weight loss are just natural side effects of recovery from an emotional crisis or a period of mental health issues. As we start to feel better, we start wanting better for ourselves, and that includes our living environments as well as our bodies.
Honestly, I think there’s a bit of woo-woo behind it. Just because we can’t objectively measure a subjective emotional experience doesn’t mean it isn’t real. There is something about the inner decision that It’s Time Now. When we feel the deep sense that change is necessary and obvious, it changes everything. We just feel different. We start to approach everything we do with a new awareness. As we start taking more initiative and agency, reclaiming our personal power, and reflecting this newfound strength in our external circumstances, it spreads. It does things. Little tweaks and adjustments happen without our always realizing it right away. How can this not permeate all our choices, food included?
My graduates report back some amazing changes. They fall in love, relocate across the globe, go back to school, change jobs, and take up old abandoned hobbies. Physical transformation is just another routine extraordinary process. Ultimately space clearing is an external manifestation of internal awareness. It’s one sign among many of an end to chronic procrastination and the beginning of a new drive toward creative action.
You know you live in Southern California when you realize you don’t have any shirts with sleeves.
You know it’s autumn in SoCal when you have to wear socks.
We moved suddenly in March. Like every time, we went through all of our stuff while we were packing, because there’s no point in buying boxes to pack stuff we know we’ll never use again. Everything went either to Goodwill, a charity rummage sale, or our half-day yard sale. This included any and all clothes that didn’t fit, had problems like stains or holes, or that we just weren’t interested in wearing anymore.
The result of this clothing purge was that I moved with one long-sleeve button-down shirt, three long-sleeve t-shirts, three cardigans, and five sweaters.
The plan was to wait until the weather turned in autumn and then go out and buy whatever I needed. Changing regions tends to mean a change in microclimate. We moved in early spring, and we found that it was cloudier, cooler, windier, and more humid near the coast than it was in the hot, dry city we were leaving. I could have bought more cool-weather clothes then, but I wanted to feel like I understood what the weather would be like first.
Planning a wardrobe, as opposed to the entropy method, involves the experience of wearing the clothes. Not how cute they are, not what we had in mind when we bought them, not how much we wish they suited us. The experience of actually wearing clothes in the time dimension! HOW do they FEEL? HOW do they FIT? HOW do they LOOK? Today?
When am I going to wear this?
Where will I be?
Who will I be with?
What will the weather be like?
What will I wear with this thing?
One person will need to plan around a dress code at work. Another person will need to plan around bending, lifting, and carrying toddlers. Someone else will need to plan outfits that merge well between work and social events. Those points are for those people. My points are different.
My two big factors are:
I walk anywhere from 5-12 miles a day;
I have trouble regulating my body temperature.
Thus, I plan my outfits around comfortable, flat shoes and extra layers. I want to plan my outer garments and my footwear first, and then coordinate other clothes around that. In fall, my look is a boots-and-jacket look. In winter, it’s hat, scarf, coat, boots, sweater, thermal underwear.
(We don’t really have a winter where I live, but my family and my in-laws both get snow).
Let’s say that autumn lasts for three months. Before that, it’s too hot to wear long sleeves and long pants. After that, it’s too cold for shirts and blouses without an extra layer. My seasons are going to be sleeveless, long sleeve, and sweater seasons. I need clothes to wear for twelve weeks. What do I do with my time during those twelve weeks?
On weekends, I want something cute and casual for going out with my husband. We’ll probably go to the movies, get some burritos or falafel, and maybe hang out at the bookstore or go to the dog park. He’ll only notice if I wear something strange, so this “look cute” rule is for me. Do I need twelve separate outfits, so that every single weekend I’m wearing something totally different? Do I need thirty-six separate outfits, so I have something different for every single Friday, Saturday, and Sunday? *snort*
Excuse me while I fall about laughing.
I probably need four casual outfits. That means I have something different each weekend, and then if I start the cycle again, I’m wearing each outfit three times that season. Right? Four times three equals twelve? On the off chance that someone at the mall is stanning me, it’ll be a month before they see me wearing the same top. On the casual, lounge-around day of the weekend, it doesn’t matter what I wear. Isn’t that the entire point? Comfortable, familiar, low-maintenance.
What else do I do with my time?
I go to two meetings every week. They’re both Toastmasters meetings, one at my husband’s work and the other in our old city. I like to dress up a bit for these outings, something business casual. These are the types of outfits I also wear when I travel, go to a book signing, or most other social events. Basically 80% of my wardrobe is in the range of business casual. It has to be machine washable, go in the dryer, and not require ironing or the wearing of pantyhose. I buy my business casual stuff in a narrow range of colors; my pants, skirts, and sweaters are always in solids. (Black, navy, gray, white [not cream or beige], red, purple, and maybe hot pink). Bright colors and patterns are for casual or more transitory items, like sundresses, halter tops, and tank tops.
What about the other 20%? That consists of workout clothes, t-shirts, a couple of pairs of shorts, sundresses, and dresses that I only wear for special occasions. This is the opposite of many maximalist wardrobes, when people find it impossible to let go of special occasion clothes even though they never wear them. All my clients except for one have had at least fifty shirts! It’s totally okay to have only one go-to dress to wear to weddings or surprise invitations. If you really desperately need something you don’t own, first consider whether this is really your type of event. Second, just go out and buy something when the specific occasion comes up. Not the “what-if” occasion but the real-life actual occasion. That’s why I no longer own an interview suit.
Let’s say I need four business casual outfits. By ‘outfit,’ I really mean ‘top’ or ‘blouse,’ because nobody is going to remember whether I wore pants or a skirt and what color they were. I can wear the same range of stuff to both meetings, because their membership doesn’t overlap, and nobody but me will know what I wore to the other meeting. If I wear a different top each time, it will be a month before I cycle through again, and I can wear a different necklace or combination of garments if I like. With these four outfits, I can take off for a long weekend trip and have a full travel wardrobe.
Boy, was that a revelation and a surprise to me. All the pinboards I saw with travel capsule wardrobe layouts? They didn’t have to be for the trip. They could actually represent a person’s entire seasonal wardrobe!
One of the factors I consider when planning a wardrobe is how much laundry I have to do and how often. I’m never going to stop at four changes of clothes, because that would mean I had a laundry emergency every three days. That also means the clothes wear out faster, which means I’d have to shop more often, and that’s simply not happening. I am, though, going to stop at a certain limit. I don’t want a bulging closet, I don’t want to fret when I choose what to wear, I don’t want to haul suitcases that are heavier than necessary, and I don’t want to spend money on extra clothes that I could be spending on travel or upgrading my electronics.
Let’s just say I can add four casual tops and four business casual tops, which will probably last for the next three years, and keep what I still have from previous years. I have pants in black, navy, and gray. I have blue and black jeans. I have a black skirt and a navy blue skirt that I can wear with tights. I have several t-shirts that I can wear with a cardigan when I’m working at home. If I buy eight tops, and it isn’t enough, I can go out and buy a few more. After the first month I’ll have a sense of what I really need, rather than what I imagine or fear I might.
I’m an under-buyer. This means that I hate shopping and spending money so much that I’ll wait too long to replace things, even when they wear out. I won’t buy things, even when I need them. That’s what’s so great about minimalism. It’s like a makeover. Before: Tightwad. After: Minimalist! Before: Shabby. After: Frugal! I’m forever going around with a bag that has straps nearly sheared off, underwear with popped elastic, and an upside-down shampoo bottle draining that precious last teaspoon into the cap. Once I was considering whether to darn a pair of socks for the fourth time, when I realized that I had completely worn out the heel. It’s silly. What I’ve found is that minimalism can help to resolve conflicts around extreme frugality, hoarding, and desire for peace of mind.
The premise of minimalism is that we only have possessions that improve our lives. For instance, I don’t need a wedding ring, but I love that it’s a symbol of my marriage. I’ve never taken it off. It’s also really useful as a social signal, representing tons of conversations about romantic availability that I never need to have. I don’t wear any other rings because I’m generally not into jewelry. Less to buy, less debt to pay off, less to store, less to clean, less to insure, less to worry about.
I trust myself not to waste money. This is true even though I occasionally suffer through fits of buyer’s remorse. What I have to learn to do is to trust that I’m only going to buy things that add value to my life. I have to trust my own judgment that I’m going to extract full value from my purchases.
I’ve had a rough guideline for twenty years: $1 per wear. A dollar per wear means that if I spend $50 on a pair of jeans, and I wear them fifty times, then they’ve fully amortized. That’s basically once a week for a year, which is plausible for jeans. Now, if I spend $50 on a sequined top, wear it once and realize it’s itchy and I have to keep yanking it into place, and then wear it once more and ruin it in the wash, I’ve paid $25 per wear. I probably loved the experience of wearing the comfy, flattering jeans and hated the experience of wearing the expensive, annoying, high-maintenance sequined top. For clothes, I’m going for the experience of how they feel on my body, not the photographic record. Why would I pay 25 times more for the discomfort of wearing the sequins, compared to the reliability of the jeans?
On the other hand, I once spent $80 on a new suit to wear to a job interview, and I got the job. I think I wore that outfit as a suit maybe four times. I might have worn the skirt by itself another half a dozen times before I changed sizes. That suit came nowhere near a dollar per wear, but it paid itself off the first day of that new job.
As an under-buyer, I resisted buying that $80 suit. I actually left the store without it and went back to look at it again. Three separate times. If I paid myself by the hour during my free time, which is a fantastic minimalism tool, then I would have wasted far more than $80 of my time fretting and fussing over it.
The sandals that I bought this summer barely lasted three months. I got two pair at $30 each, and one pair is destroyed. I found a chunk of the sole on the floor and realized that they don’t even qualify as shoes anymore. The second pair are probably only a few miles of walking away from that fate. I’m mad at myself, because I really wanted to splurge on a new pair of Birkenstocks and I cheaped out at the last minute. My first pair of Birks survived being re-soled twice. When I finally let them go, they were ten years old. I paid significantly more per mile walked on the cheap sandals I bought online than I would have for what I already knew was a quality shoe. My average miles walked have increased this year from three miles a day to seven. Maybe it’s wrong to expect more than two hundred miles of use out of a pair of discount summer sandals. My shoes are my car, and I have to recondition myself to expect to go through them more quickly than I did in the past.
The point of minimalism is to place our priority on what matters most. Priority is singular. After working on our purpose in life and valuing our loved ones, there is only so much attention and mental focus left for material possessions. What we buy, what we use, what we keep, should add value to daily life. If it isn’t obvious why we have it and what we do with it, it’s up for review. Why take up time, space, or money with stuff we don’t need? The flip side of this philosophy is that there are things that we do legitimately need, want, and use. Because these things argue for themselves, because these things justify their existence in our lives, it’s fine to spend on quality.
We splurged when we bought our bed as newlyweds, because we knew we’d spend a third of our lives on that mattress. The cost per year and cost per day is not extravagant. That purchase was a gesture of hope and commitment. That mattress is over eight years old now, and when we replace it, it’s going to feel in some ways like a renewal of our marriage vows. You and me and the box springs, my dear, and another thousand iterations of changing the fitted sheet together.
I’m starting to realize that it’s a little weird, the way my spending habits reflect my strange notions of frugality. I will happily pick up the check for lunch with a friend but flinch when it’s time to replace my socks. I’m trying to rejigger my preferences. I don’t need to underbuy the basics because we already save so much of our income and because there are so many categories of things we don’t buy at all. It’s okay to have new socks and underwear and a work bag that doesn’t have parts falling off! The objects we use the most often are the objects that are, by definition, the most valuable to us. A splurge on an item of daily use will have a far lower impact on the bank balance than a similar splurge on a luxury item. There is no reason why we can’t surround ourselves with functional routine objects. Everything that we use on a daily basis can be replaced or maintained in good working order, allowing us to live in domestic contentment, in comfort, and even in style.
Option B is a tough but necessary read. Sheryl Sandberg shares her experience of being a widow with young children, using her grief as an example of how to deal with adversity. It’s important to know this setting out, because the time isn’t always right to read about death. The book covers a wide variety of traumatic experiences, adding yet more depth to the perspective.
We learn that what makes trauma hard to overcome is the belief that it is personal, pervasive, and permanent. Whatever has happened, it happened to me, it has ruined everything, and I will never feel any way other than I feel right now. The work of grieving is the thankless task of earning wisdom. This happens, it just happens sometimes, it has happened to others just as it did to me, time will pass, and eventually I will learn to accept this terrible loss.
It’s hard to know what to say to someone who is going through grief or a major life crisis. Part of the reason is that the wounds can be so raw, there really isn’t anything anyone could say that wouldn’t rub wrong. I severed a friendship after my grandmother died because I was offended that he called her Nana. As though she were his! The temerity! I look back and realize that I repaid kindness with cruelty, and I’m shocked that it felt so justified at the time. We were young-ish, and neither of us had yet lost a close relative. Neither of us knew our way through the gauntlet. Hurt hurts.
One of the great strengths of Option B is its discussion of how to talk to people about their tragedies. It could serve as an instruction manual. How do you talk to someone without stumbling into one of the many, many pitfalls? How do you talk about your own loss with others? The next time I find myself in that situation (on either end), I believe I will pick up this book and seek some advice.
Getting what you want is to be distinguished from doing what you want. Often it’s possible to have both; the things we want to have and the things we want to do aren’t always related. Other times, though, doing what you want actively prevents you from getting what you want. Sometimes the reverse is true, when getting what you want gets in the way of doing what you want. All of that is a moot point if you don’t actually know what you want in the first place.
Figuring out what you want has to be specific, or you won’t know when you have it. For instance, if you want “shoes,” do you want to wear them? If so, then you have to ask for your size. Are we talking any and every pair of shoes in your size? Probably not. The more detailed your vision, the more likely you’re going to find yourself walking away in some great new shoes. Too broad, and you may find yourself knee-deep in a closet catastrophe, with piles of shoes that are pretty but too uncomfortable to ever actually wear. This is the first pitfall, of thinking you want something only to realize that the request was too broad. Getting what you want - the cute shoes - interferes with doing what you want, presumably walking or dancing or making it through the night without carrying them like a small dog.
Is it the shoes that you really wanted, though? Or was it the excitement of a new purchase? The desire to feel attractive to others, to draw admiration? Maybe it was something negative like insecurity, boredom, or envy? A feeling of obligation to buy something after spending time at that store? Every object serves both a practical and an emotional need. Acknowledgment of the emotional need tends to lead to much faster results.
Getting what you want works better when you think in terms beyond the material. Physical objects are so easy to come by in our culture that it’s usually harder to get rid of them than it is to bring them home. What are things you want that aren’t physical things?
Peace of mind
Time in nature
Being in “the zone” or a “flow state”
Maybe some things that are tangible while not being objects:
A safe neighborhood
Being “organized” and orderly
Physical strength and stamina
Doing what you want is usually interpreted as “feeling like it” or being “in the mood.” You’re doing what you want when nobody else is telling you what to do. You’re choosing how you spend your time and what you do, in what order. That’s the feeling of autonomy and agency that many of us aren’t finding at our jobs. We put so much importance on doing what we want in our free time because we’re quite tired of being ordered around and having to follow someone else’s schedule during the workday. Some of us come home to the extra job of managing a romantic partner, kids, and a home environment that reflects a lot of attempts at getting what we thought we wanted.
This is where doing what you want sometimes precludes getting what you want. The same leisure time that could be spent finding a more satisfying job or going on adventures tends to disappear somehow. So much of that precious free time tends to go to relatively unsatisfying time sucks like social media, games, or binge-watching something or other. On the list of Things You Want That Aren’t Things, is this activity leading toward any of them?
Power is not given; it’s taken. That’s agency. Initiative comes from within. It’s only when you decide that you’re going after something like a skill or a character trait or a credential or a job opening that you ever get to have it. Nobody comes knocking, asking, “Say, would you like to feel more competent today?” (People do come knocking to offer a few things, namely friendship, adventure, and romance, but only when you already seem like the kind of person who’d be up for it). The result of taking initiative and following through is that you expand your circle of influence. More people trust and rely on you to do more things. The more you take on, the more you execute well, the more it tends to turn into leverage. Money and autonomy! This is when going after what you want leads to doing what you want.
Self-discipline is freedom. That sounds like it came straight out of 1984 - it’s been a while since I read it; I’d have to check. What it means is that the more you create your own structures and guidelines, the more likely you are to get what you want. Since you’ve chosen it for yourself, it starts to feel more like you’re doing what you want, as well.
Pay off your consumer debt, and two things happen. Your credit improves, and the money you used to pay toward interest and finance charges is suddenly available for you to spend. The temporary self-discipline of restricting spending results in greater financial freedom and options.
Get fit, and all kinds of things happen. Your energy level goes up, your sleep improves, your posture improves, you don’t get sick as often, and all these weird little mystery aches and pains disappear. You stop having cravings for certain foods and start wanting more water. Suddenly you find that you have energy left over at the end of the day. You’re ready, willing, and able to do all sorts of interesting things you wouldn’t have been into in the past.
Master a character flaw, and everything happens. You stop annoying yourself. Your relationships improve. You start being the beneficiary of greater kindness and respect. You realize that self-control makes your life easier, and that this ripples outward.
Getting what you want tends to be the result of applied persistence. It takes learning the rules. How do people go about getting this? This job, this personality trait, this skill, this series of adventures and experiences? What do you have to do differently if you want this for yourself, whatever it is? Doing what you’ve been doing is getting you whatever you’re getting. Doing slightly less of what you want in the short term may be all that’s necessary to get what you want, and then go back to doing what you want, too.
If someone had told me I was going to marry a jock, I wouldn’t even have bothered to roll my eyes. The only thing less plausible would be if they told me I was going to start walking around wearing a bikini with high heels. The fact that the latter doesn’t sound all that far-fetched anymore has a lot to do with the truth of the former. I fell in love with an athlete, and then he turned me into one. Sort of like being made into a zombie, except that you gradually get better posture and start moving faster.
I gained a lot of weight in my first marriage. Most people do. Marriage is usually an unspoken agreement that “I take thee and all thy flaws as long as you promise to ignore mine.” Let’s eat nachos and chill. My first marriage was so bad that always doing the exact opposite in my second marriage seemed like it might be a solid plan. What if, instead of just steadily gaining weight together, we made a pact to try to be a little more fit every year? Like, one percent?
I always hated anything even remotely resembling P.E. If there are roughly thirty kids in every grade school classroom, and one of them is the proverbial last kid picked for every team, then there are quite a few of us out there. I’ve been smacked in the head by nearly every type of ball, and once served a volleyball directly at our gym teacher’s butt, where it bounced off and flew across the room. That was my shining moment on the sports reel. If there was an all-American Olympic team for reading while snaffling sleeves of Oreos, I’d medal.
The first it ever occurred to me to maybe lose a couple of pounds, money was involved. My husband, a mere work acquaintance at the time, had set up an annual weight loss competition that the company wound up sponsoring. When I found out that I could win cash through any means whatsoever, I was game. All I needed to know was whether I could safely lose weight, and if so, how much. I had no understanding that I was clinically obese at the time. I didn’t care, either. All I wanted was that sweet, sweet munnah. The contest lasted for three months, and I listened carefully as my new work buddy taught me everything he knew about weight loss. I wound up winning over $200 in two years. Using cash prizes as a weight loss incentive was sheer genius, and it helped me trust this guy who formerly weighed 305 pounds.
We started working out together at the gym across the street. I’m not always very gracious about patiently listening while other people teach me things, but my new friend showed me how to set up all the weight equipment at the gym without mansplaining. We became workout buddies, which was great, because we were also lunch buddies and we tended to put away a lot of chimichangas.
At some point along the way, we realized that maybe there could be something more between us. This may or may not have had something to do with the fact that we’d both lost thirty pounds since we’d met.
We both gained back some of the weight while we were planning our wedding. On our honeymoon, we were sprawled out on the hotel bed after a decadent meal (with appetizers, drinks, and dessert, of course) when we saw Biggest Loser for the first time. That was our moment. Our honeymoon was the last eating-based vacation we took. Since then, we’ve planned our trips around backpacking and physical exploits.
I was the one who got us into running. I chose it as a sacrifice, the literal worst thing I could think of, because I knew if I asked for help then my honey would deny me nothing. I’d trick him into running with me! I had three angles: one, I knew nothing about running; two, I was terrible with maps; and three, I didn’t feel safe running alone at night. He came out with me for my first quarter-mile and he was still there when I got to six. It wasn’t until I started doing eight miles at a stretch that he dropped back. I had to do my marathon alone. This was the point at which I understood that I was no longer the student.
Marriage has been good to us. We’re both better people together than we used to be. From my husband, I learned everything I know about physical culture, about comfortably merging the identities of jock and nerd, about feeling at home in a gym. These things gave me a confidence and strength I never could have imagined. I returned the favor, introducing him to new cuisines, teaching him about health food and how to cook mystery vegetables. Our meals and our workouts are just backdrops to the endless conversation that is our marriage. I think sometimes we actually get through a workout while barely realizing we’ve done it, like running an errand, while chattering away about something.
The willingness to venture forth and meet someone in their world is so important to a relationship. My liking for this guy in spite of his off-putting interest in sports led me to become curious. What would it be like to feel like an athlete? What would it be like to actually enjoy this stuff? As he recognized my curiosity and openness to the unfamiliar, he stepped up and became more willing to explore my world, too. We were each other’s trainers. May we always be.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.